One of the most interesting things about television these days is watching certain shows wrestle with procedural aspects of narrative and more serialized forms of it. There’s obviously no one right way to do it, and plenty of shows are successful along all aspects of that spectrum. Episodes such as tonight’s Camelot can be seen as either a placeholder (if you weren’t a fan) or a tablesetter (if you were). Things happened, to be sure, but nothing really pushed the overall story itself forward.
Now, had Camelot a 22-episode season, then ones such as this would be par for the course every few weeks. Pacing a super-narrative along 22 hours is a daunting task to say the least, and not necessarily the best course of action. It’s like Ferris Bueller would say: Television moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it. But Camelot ISN’T a 22-episode marathon: it’s a healthy 10-episode sprint, with ostensibly little time for a meandering, almost Terrance Malick-type episode in which we looked around. A lot. At the panaromic vistas of Ye Olde Past. What we saw was often quite beautiful. But it was also often quite dull.
As for the beautiful: it’s fair to say this was the best looking episode to date. Whereas the sets of the show have ranged from serviceable to great, the wideshots of the countryside in tonight’s hour were almost uniformly stunning. In episode about three long, separate journeys, it’s smart of the show to give a sense of the geography those people traversed in order to reach their destinations. But the episode almost seemed as seduced by those shots as Merlin and Morgan have been by magic: by the twentieth dolly shot lovingly depicting a lightly clouded field with mountains in the distance, I cried mercy and prayed for them to stop.
Those shots were meant to not only convey topography, but also provide a unity that the narratives themselves did not have. Having an episode titled “Three Journeys” pretty much is a spoiler in and of itself, but the literal nature by which the tale was told would not have been found in any of the books left in Arthur’s childhood home. Using the sky as common umbrella for the action doesn’t work as well as narrative cohesion. It may have worked for Fivel in An American Tail, but we’re dealing with theoretically more sophisticated storytelling here.
Having an episode based around three separate journeys isn’t the worst way to structure an hour, provided the three trips have something thematically related. But other than “distances that can be covered over the course of a few days,” they really had no real relation to one other. Even if something as simple/trite as “self-discovery” had been the common theme, then the non-related excursions could have been cast under the same narrative net. But each trip was a sub-episode unto itself, creating a patchwork episode that never let any one of the stories feel neglected, but never really allowed any to truly take off.
The most interesting of the three concerned Merlin’s mission to retrieve Ector’s library for installation at Camelot. Leaving aside why it took so long for Merlin to get around to this supposedly important task, it did afford the chance for Merlin, Leontes, Kay, and Gawain time to get to know each other. More important, it gave the audience a chance to know these four men. While Merlin’s seen his share of screentime, the others largely exist in relation to Arthur as opposed to being individuals unto themselves. The company of these men seemed to loosen Merlin’s tongue for the first substantial time, allowing him to express and conquer (albeit on a small level) his inner fears about his addiction to magic. This led to Merlin finally delving back in again (leading Kay’s mind to his father’s bunker, distracting Leontes after a fall), which could lead to great things down the line…or terrible things. At least he didn’t turn Dark Willow on us. So, score.
There were some interesting tidbits in the trial at Castle Pendragon, but most of the juicy bits never actually made it onscreen. For the second week in a row, a trial dominated a good deal of Camelot, only this one saw Sybil on the witness stand with Morgan as judge. Having opened herself up to the commoners around her, Morgan now finds herself politically trapped due to accusations made by a former fellow member of the nunnery. Sybil’s self-defense offered an insight into why a holy lady would commit such unholy acts: "There are forces that must be satisfied to be kept at bay." In that configuration, Sybil could see herself as serving God while simultaneously performing acts that go against His teachings. Sybil comes across as a martyr, while Morgan at times shows flashes on a once-innocent girl who lost the majority of that side when she was “chosen” by Sybil to perform the rituals that ultimately led to the nunnery’s destruction.
I’ll say this for the Arthur/Guinevere part of the hour: it least they no longer act like two kids that just hit puberty and don’t know how to handle all those weird feelings in their pants. But after an episode in which both seemed to be moving on for the time being, Camelot apparently couldn’t wait to have them snogging as soon as possible. But the greater crime in this arc lay in Guinevere’s almost non-reaction to her father’s death. Not only has no mention been made of him to date, but her dull demeanor after his passing spoke not of repressed grief but rather simple apathy. Would wailing to the heavens have been preferable? No. But something in between certainly would have. It’s the difference between a character consciously withholding emotion and an actress unable to actually provide it. (Honestly, I didn’t know her father actually died until Guinevere started to thank everyone at the wake.)
So at the end of these journeys, are we any further down the road, or simply back to where we started? Merlin made incremental progress, and Morgan’s relationship with Sybil got slightly more complicated. But Arthur’s basically back to Square One, albeit with more books to look up from whenever his true love walks by. Having episodes of television that build character while sacrificing action are fine, and sometimes necessary. But in making episodes such as this, those character beats had better be damn important in order to stop narrative momentum cold. That holds doubly true for a show with as short a season as Camelot. And tonight’s attempt simply didn’t accomplish this.
- I’ve seen next week’s episode as well, and while that’s also got a lot of character-based work, it’s far more effective than what’s on display tonight. Why? That would be spoiling. I only bring it up to point out that the show does possess the ability to do the type of work needed to produce compelling figures.
- Morgan’s small moments of humanity keep her fair more interesting than any of her Machiavellian scheming. The single tear that she sheds after Sybil pleads her case, coupled with her telling the young boy, “"You have a good mother. Treasure her,” convey the girl that left Castle Pendragon as opposed to the woman that now rules it.
- “I have to swim to forget myself.” Whatever you gotta tell yourself, Guinevere.
- “Will you hold me, and nothing else?” Arthur is a king, but he’s a totally whipped king.
- Snark aside, showing that Guinevere can handle her own while fending off would-be poachers adds a predictable but welcome side to her character.
- The best transition between journeys, and the one time in which they really DID feel connected: Arthur’s invocation of Cicero, with a quote once spoken by his father…a memory simultaneously dreamt of by Kay halfway across the countryside. Nicely done there.
- I kept thinking of Eddie Izzard's routine about England's cunning use of flags to conquer the world at the outset of tonight's ep. "No Flags, No Country! Those are the rules that…I just made up."
- Lots of lens flares in those tracking shots. Did J.J. Abrams direct this?
- All the world’s knowledge at this time fits on four horses. Now you know. Feel free to share that factoid at your next dinner party.
- "So many books…and they are all different!" I love that Gawain is a not-so-secret book nerd.